Giving Thanks for Tips to Push Past Writer’s Block

October 1, 2018

When I’m plagued by writer’s block in the middle of a novel, I picture myself at Thanksgiving dinner.

Well . . . not the dinner itself, but the after-party, when family members are scattered in various places throughout the house.

There’s the den of course, where sports fans sprawl semi-catatonically in front of a football game on a large-screen TV. There’s the spare bedroom, where kids are transforming pillows and linens into forts. There’s the living room, where political disagreements are getting heated. There’s the kitchen, where chitchat turns mellow while dishes are rinsed or slices of pumpkin pie are picked over. There’s the back yard, where a game of kickball is unfolding, or the front-porch stoop, where an intimate conversation is bringing tears to someone’s eyes.

Yes, that’s the house my imagination walks through when my inspiration is flagging.

Once I’ve begun a novel, I have a strong sense of the basics: tone, voice, setting . . . and all cylinders are definitely firing when I’m in the middle of a major plot point. But during quieter moments in the novel — moments of reflection, or subtle character development, or nuanced interactions that will ultimately hold the whole tapestry together — I can sometimes flounder, usually because there are so many options. Now that I’ve created a dozen or so characters, none of whom have anything particularly pressing to do at the moment, what picture should I paint? What mood should I capture?

That’s when I mentally transport myself to Thanksgiving day . . . and follow the energy.

In my mind, I’m meandering around the house, open to anything but committed to nothing. For instance, maybe the football game will catch my interest as I wander into the room, a glass of wine in hand. Or maybe I’ll find myself playfully crawling into the kids’ makeshift fort, or changing into sweats for the backyard kickball game. Maybe the political conversation will jumpstart my righteous indignation. Maybe the laughter at the kitchen sink will draw me in, or the hushed voices on the front-porch stoop will pique my curiosity. Anything’s possible in this sprawling, bloated, tryptophan-fueled sea of humanity.

And once I’ve committed to a course of action, I’ll try it on for size. Is whatever discussion I’ve wandered into holding my interest? Is the game getting too rambunctious for my taste? Am I sniffing out a better opportunity the next room over? I stay light on my feet, following the energy. . . 

. . . just like I do when my novel stalls.

The great news, I remind myself during these bouts of writer’s block, is that my groundwork has already populated my story with characters I love and care about. I know their backstories, their personalities, their secrets, their passions. So when my inspiration is flagging, I meander around and eavesdrop on their lives for a moment or two, seeing what catches my attention. For instance, maybe I’ve begun a scene featuring a conversation between the protagonist and her dad. The intention is to flesh out the dynamics of their relationship . . . but the energy feels flat. Good news: My other characters are lurking backstage. I can trot one of them out to add a new dynamic to the scene — or replace the dad with the mom — or have the ceiling fan crash so I can toss the whole scene into a blender.

I try these options on for size, and if my reaction is “meh,” my mind will wander somewhere else. Which possibility do I find intriguing? Which one sets my synapses on fire? Which one gets me out of kitchen duty?

These are the mind games I play when my brain is feeling sluggish . . . and if all else fails, I bolt from the Thanksgiving table and take a walk around the block, savoring the crisp fall air.

I know my peeps will be waiting for me when I get back. 

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© 2018 Christine Hurley Deriso